Obsession (UK 1949)

Robert Newton (left) and Naunton Wayne have a discussion about 'Royal Scot' locos and their tenders – one of the brilliant dialogue exchanges which mask the cat and mouse game the would be murderer and detective are playing. Behind them is the large model railway set-up that the Newton character uses to help him wind down from his work.

This title turned up in my monthly LoveFilm rental list. I don’t remember ordering it and for a while I was puzzled as to how it got there. On reflection, I think it may be connected to Keith’s evening class on British Film Noir (read the comments on the posting). Anyway, it turned out to be an interesting find – despite a poor DVD transfer on the disc distributed by Fremantle Media.

The script is by Alec Coppel and is adapted from his novel ‘A Man About a Dog’. The Australian Coppel was a prolific screenwriter but is perhaps best known as one of the writers on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The director for this independent production by Nat Bronstein was Edward Dmytryk, by 1948 famous for a couple of classic Hollywood films noirsFarewell My Lovely (1944) and Crossfire (1947). However in 1947 Dmytryk was one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’ as fingered by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was blacklisted by the Hollywood studio chiefs. With no chance of work in the US, Dmytryk followed several other US-based film creatives and re-located to the UK where he worked on two productions before returning to face HUAC again in 1950, this time ‘naming names’. (His other UK film was the now obscure Give Us This Day (1949) a drama based on an Italian novel and set in Brooklyn.)

Another HUAC victim, Phil Brown, plays one of the four central characters in Obsession, an American diplomat who falls into a relationship with the beautiful but flighty young wife of a London psychiatrist played by Robert Newton. The wife is ‘Storm’ (wonderful name for the character!) and she’s played by Sally Grey. The quartet is completed by the surprise casting of Naunton Wayne (one half of the comic duo of ‘Charters and Caldicott’ who enlivened Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes as well as some British wartime films) as a Detective Superintendent at Scotland Yard. Storm’s affair with the young American is the ‘last straw’ for Newton’s psychiatrist and he determines to abduct the young man and hold him captive for several months before killing him and disposing of the body in a foolproof way. They say that you should never act with children or animals. I would add – or plan murders with them. It is the accidental intrusion into the plan of Storm’s dog ‘Monty’ that steers the narrative towards its inevitable conclusion. Thus the title of the original novel. The American release via Eagle-Lion (set up to distribute Rank films in the US) had the title changed to The Hidden Room which typically plays on the intrigue created by a narrative device in the story but which misses the real attraction which is the obsession to detail and the calm shown by Newton’s character.

Overall this is a very good suspense thriller – cerebral rather than action-packed. All four central performances are excellent and Dmytryk keeps the narrative moving as he allows the audience to enjoy the trading of great dialogue between the principals. The dog is very good too. A couple of other interesting names are Kenneth Horne as co-producer and Nino Rota as music composer. Horne later became the host of two famous UK comedy radio programmes in the 1960s. Rota was one of several leading figures from Italian and French Cinema who worked in the UK at this time. In the 1950s and 1960s he went on to work on the films of Fellini, Visconti and then in 1972 on The Godfather. I confess that I hardly noticed the music in Obsession – but that may be a tribute to the appeal of the narrative.

If you are interested in films like Obsession, the key text is Robert Murphy’s Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1939–49, London: Routledge, 1989. Bob is also listed here as having a book on British Film Noir in preparation for Palgrave Macmillan. I owe the little I know about the films to Bob’s evening class on the sensationalist melodramas and crime films of late 1940s British Cinema at the BFI in the 1980s when he used his research to construct a course which showed several obscure examples – the best of which was an earlier Robert Newton film, Temptation Harbour (1947) with Simone Simon (and based on a Georges Simenon story).

I’m still not sure what we mean by British film noir but Obsession has links via its central characters to two films based on the novels of Nigel Balchin, Mine Own Executioner (1947) with its psychologist attempting to help a soldier with what we might now call ‘post traumatic shock’ and The Small Back Room (1949) with its ‘boffin’ at the end of his tether and facing the terrors of withdrawal from alcohol as he defuses a bomb. This trio of cerebral heroes/villains are emblematic of a certain kind of British crime melodrama.

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